Monday, November 16, 2009

Garage With a View

"Oh, hi. How's it going?"
"Great. That's good to hear. Yeah ... thanks for stopping by."
"Where have I been? Oh, I dunno. Around ... you know how it goes."
"Yep, thought so."

I'm gonna ease back into this thing, the blog that is, with some miscellaneous and sundry updates. Nothing very earth shattering has gone down. I wasn't in the hospital with swine flu or locked up in detox. Just kickin' it with friends and family y'know. Fall is a time for revelry and irreverence. Plenty of both going on and, well, maybe they've just sapped my energy for writing. Personally, I blame Vegas, but that's just me.

Since we moved into this house in July 2008, I have been on a mission to create the perfect woodshop space in half of our two-car garage -- all 217.5 square feet of it. I think I've mentioned this before. In fact, I know I have. You'll just have to bear with me, I guess.

Woodworking is no new hobby of mine; I grew up tinkering with wood. My Dad was a carpenter who in his spare time built reproduction muzzleloading rifles and period accoutrement patterned after 18th century designs. Later he restored furniture and built a number of fine pieces himself. I suppose I inherited from him no sums of money or fancy possessions, but I did gain a love for working with my hands. For that I'd barter not even a king's ransom.

I can't shake it. At times I feel it is the thing that drives me most passionately. I've had a string of "professional" jobs that I've been fortunate to love in one way or another. I think he would be proud. What blue collar parent isn't happy their kids are working with their minds and not their hands, after all?

My jobs have tied me to the outdoors and allowed me to peddle in things I pedal -- bikes now, but previously canoes and kayaks, climbing and backpacking gear. It's not like I'm a guide or something -- living in dirtbag glamor out of the back of an oxidizing Land Rover, gracing the glossy recycled pages of a Patagonia catalog. I sell stuff. It's fun stuff, stuff that isn't going to overdose people or rot them from the inside as they sit glued to electronic gadgets and LCD flat panel screens. For that I am thankful. But, still, I sell stuff. I make my living in front of a computer screen writing emails, compiling reports, laying out processes, policies, plans and documents. I am a cog in the capitalist machine and we all know what oils the gears of that machine. (Kinda tough when you also carry Marxist tendencies in your heart.)

Anyway, I think I was talking about my garage and maybe leading up to what it means to me. Members of the fairer reproductive set (no, not the Kennedy clan) can say things like "man cave" or "man space" but I believe that belittles the deeper implications of what my garage shop means to me. I want to throw out two caveats: 1) I've spilt plenty of beer in said garage with my guy friends telling stupid guy jokes and whatnot, and 2) I admit I fully grasp that what I am about to describe will mean nothing to some people. I don't get you people, but I am trying to become more tolerant and open to those who care little about systems and order -- those who think "work triangle" means gossiping in the office about a certain office mate, not achieving the most efficient use of a limited space that supports a subset of highly repetitive tasks.

This is the fourth woodwork-specific shop space I have designed. My first was on the back porch of a tiny rental house my first wife and I occupied from 1997-1999. My Dad came into town for a weekend and we bought the lumber and materials to frame, deck and wire the 6 by 12 foot concrete porch within the span of 2 days. Most of my experience working alongside my father had been while I was younger. He'd explained things like roof pitch and how to mark it out with a framing square. As a kid, that stuff would go in one ear and out the other. But that weekend I absorbed volumes. It was to be the last time he and I would work so closely together, ever. I've since thought back to that experience and wished I had a dozen more tutorials like it. But I won't. Even though I went on to study calculus, probability theory, differential equations, statics, dynamics and physics I never grasped the proficiency with which my Dad and his peers were able to perform such "simple" math on the fly at a jobsite.

I grew into that first tiny shop and my skills grew some too. My next space was the basement of a large rental house. I had so much room but still too little experience. My father-in-law lent me a bandsaw and a jointer and I had no idea how to use them or maintain them. I was still of the belief that power tools weren't supposed to need adjustment from the factory or occasional sharpening and tuning. He gave me a decent set of bench chisels and I sharpened them all wrong. I bought my first plane and set it on a shelf when all I did with it was butcher wood marginally better than hacking through it with my poorly honed chisels. I was spoiled though with space. It was pretty nice while it lasted.

Things went on hiatus as we moved into and then out of a small house from 2000-2001. I packed everything up and mothballed it in my mother-in-law's greenhouse. When I moved to Minnesota in 2002 I sold to friends the tools that were too big to carry (tablesaw, router table, miter saw) and kept the rest in boxes. Except for occasionally breaking out the cordless drill or saw, most of my stuff didn't see the light of day again until July 2008 when I began moving into this garage.

That is where our story resumes. (Lucky for you, I'll stagger your monotony with some photos!)

Previously, my workspace had three sources of light: 1) A generous assortment of fluorescent worklights. Nice if you need them but far from ideal on their own. 2) A garage door on the west wall. A beautiful option for nice days but less than adequate for cold or rainy weather and what if you want to fire up the table saw at 10p.m. on a summer's night? 3) A small 2X2 window pane on an anchored door (I don't even have a key if I wanted to remove the 3" drywall screws holding it closed) on the southeast wall. I'd been daydreaming of windows and skylights and anything else that could bring some real sunlight streaming into the shop since I began outfitting it over a year ago. With the basic space allocation finalized this summer I knew where I needed to place a natural light source. I built my final bench and shelves in anticipation of popping a window smack in the center of the east wall.


Here's the interior view of the east wall with the bench moved away. Dark, eh?


And here is the exterior view of the same wall. A lot of bland siding. This is also the view from the kitchen at the back of the house. (Some dark gray touch-ups indicate where I had to patch holes from pesky woodpeckers attacking the garage. Placing a suet feeder out there was the instant remedy for that problem.)


Making progress with new king studs, jack studs and sills in place. After measuring once, twice, three times ... hell, I think I measured nearly a dozen times because there was no going back from the next step -- cutting the hole all the way through. One website I'd consulted referred to it as "violating the building envelope." Yes, that is a descriptive phrase.


Once you're sure of the whole deal, grabbing the reciprocating saw and plunging it through the masonite is a cool feeling. I was even more pleased because our annoying neighbors who like to argue and play loud music at all hours of the night were hanging out on their back porch the entire time. Perhaps the next window will be installed on a full moon at midnight just for effect.


Marking the rough opening to square it up with the circular saw. Compared to cabinetry doing something where a sixteenth or even an eighth of an inch mattered little was fun.


Here's the trimmed, finished product complete with bird feeder. The new window is nice. I find myself spending some time staring out of it at different times of the day. Most mornings, as I'm loading my bike, I take a few minutes to walk over and see the birds going nuts at the feeder while I notice where the light illuminates previously dark recesses of my shop. I sink away in my mind to imagine a time when the projects of the future -- the moments that will be spent there with perfect golden sunlight guiding my pencil to mark boards or position material to make a cut -- are all that will occupy my mind.

I also think about how the proficiency to install the window, simple as it is, would not have been possible without my Dad. Years ago when we'd built my back porch shop we didn't quite finish it that weekend. I distinctly recall some of those final tasks seemed extremely daunting to me. I called him to ask for advice and instruction. In one of the clearest moments of wisdom I ever recall my father displaying, he calmly told me, "You know all you need to know. You can do it."

The window, and the shop, mean something intangible to me. Those who get it, get it, perhaps. But I'll keep thinking and keep writing in hopes of better realizing it for myself.